"Tom Petty, Springsteen, Neil Young, and especially Pearl Jam . these are the people I look to," says Chris Carrabba, the creative force behind Dashboard Confessional. "They do what they want and follow their hearts, going wherever their music is taking them. I look to those guys, and I start to think: how does it work for them? What were they holding on to, and do I hold on to that as well?"
With the release of his fourth full-length album Dusk and Summer, the Boca Raton, Florida resident is no longer simply an up-and-coming musician; he's a career artist. Dusk is certainly the most defining album of what has already been a remarkable career; on one end, it's a welcome return to the full band sound of Carrabba's earliest, pre-Dashboard work, and yet also the most forward-thinking and innovative record he's ever recorded.
"When I started Dashboard six years ago, I was reacting to these other bands I had been in," says Carrabba, referring to his time in the punk bands the Vacant Andys and Further Seems Forever. "At the time, I needed something...simpler." If those bands were about being loud and filling a room, Carrabba's instinct was to strip it all down and let his voice and his guitar carry the emotions.
It was a smart, and life-changing, idea. After recording an EP (Drowning), Carrabba released his debut full-length The Swiss Army Romance on the up-and-coming indie label Drive-Thru in 2001. Although it seemed like an odd fit, Carrabba's acoustic yearnings found a home with the punk and modern rock crowd. A year of constant touring led to bigger shows, better opening slots and the sense that something bigger was coming.
With 2001's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most on Vagrant, a more mainstream crowd started to take notice. "Screaming Infidelities" became a much talked-about anthem, with the single garnering some radio and video play. More importantly, it opened up a wider audience for Carrrabba. MTV commissioned an Unplugged special, and later released it as a live album. Rolling Stone and Spin wrote features, after noticing the growing crowds at Dashboard shows who sang along to every single word...and oftentimes, took over the show. It was half arena rock, half revivalist meeting.
"I always feel like I'm on a chase, me and my audience," says Carrabba. "There are no boundaries between us. Any show I do, big or small, just playing some random place in Arkansas, it always makes me really feel alive."
On 2002's Summers Kiss EP and 2003's million-selling A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, the singer started tinkering again with a full band sound, earning a hit with a electric-guitar reworking of his earlier song "Hands Down" and "Vindicated," a track released on the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack that ended up entrenched on TRL and at #2 on rock radio. More tours, this time headlining arenas and opening for U2, followed, as did a fun MTV concert special where Carrabba covered REM's Automatic for the People and jammed with Michael Stipe. But even these projects only hinted at the sounds to come.
"When I started recording after my last album, I decided I need to explore that full sonic realm again," he says. "And it's not just because I'm using a full band. I write all the songs, rhythms and instrumentation. It's just my taste as a writer now."
When Carrabba sat down to work on the record in 2004, he hired legendary producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan) to helm the disc. It was a fruitful, but unusual way of prepping a Dashboard record. "Chris and Daniel made a record, and a lot of the writing and recording was really free-form. I don't think Chris had worked that way before, but he made this cool, innovative music," says Rich Egan, president of Vagrant Records and long-time friend of Carrabba's. "But then they wrapped, Daniel had to go...and Chris suddenly decided he wanted to record another song. So he got Don Gilmore (Pearl Jam, Linkin Park), another great guy, and then suddenly he was on a writing binge, six songs in four days. That's most of the record, that new stuff." He laughs. "But there is a ton of great, unreleased stuff recorded with Daniel that hopefully will see the light of day."
Instead of confusion, however, the new album flaunts its diversity. The new sonic palette on Dusk runs the gamut from shoegazer pop to full-on rock, piano ballads to dissonant noise. The first single, "Don't Wait," may be the best song Carrabba's ever written - over jangly guitars and crashing drums, Carrabba croons "to lay your armor down", then pulls out an impossibly catchy, almost Bono-esque "oooh ah oooh" chorus.
And yet, that opening track only hints at what's to follow. "Reason To Believe" is aggressive, "Stolen" floats by on strings and synths, and "Slow Decay" takes on a noisy, foreboding tone ("I'm not dead but I should be"). On the opposite end comes the pretty, piano-led "So Long, So Long," featuring the Counting Crows' Adam Duritz on back-up vocals.
"Adam and I met at the Bridge School Benefit a few years ago," says Carrabba. "We knew we were going to be doing something together at some point. I wanted a tour, but he thought we should do a song."
Oddly, it's "Dusk and Summer," the one acoustic, "classic-style" Dashboard track that nabs the album's title. "I knew I'd write a song at the eleventh hour that would surmise and tie together all the pieces of the record, and that was it," he says. "It's so affirming; there's no question that it sums up the album."
After wrapping the album, Carrabba immediately made plans to hit the road and stay there. "It's strange, our fan base started as college kids, got a little younger, and then went older again...and now it's boundless," says Carrabba. "I think it's because everyone is welcome. I don't try to shape an audience; once you do that, you get in trouble."
Despite a return, in a way, to the sounds of his past, Carrabba says he doesn't know where Dusk and Summer will lead him down the road. "I think for the next 5-10 years, I'll still be finding my feet," he says. "And I think everything is cyclical. I'll be back to me and a guitar at some point. But people are hopefully embracing what I'm doing now, whatever this thing is, this new ideas. It's still me; I'm just taking a different avenue to get there."
His new album Underneath It All is out now.